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Motherhood is exhausting – but this week I was reminded that we’ve come a long, long way | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

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‘Say what you want about millennials, but this is a generation of hands-on dads.” If you’re a parent on Instagram, you have probably seen a video using this template by now. Against a background of saccharine music, users show their male partners lovingly interacting with their children. It’s cheesy and self-congratulatory, and if I did it to my husband I think he would be utterly mortified. But there’s also something cheering about it. This is a generation that has been bashed by its predecessors for supposed entitlement, so such videos represent a gentle, if sentimental, rebuke – an assertion that we are doing things differently when it comes to childcare.

And we are doing things differently, there’s no doubt about it. Millennial dads show up for their kids. They spend three times more time with their children than previous generations, and whereas in 1982 almost half of dads (43%) admitted to never having changed a nappy, that figure had fallen to 3% by 2000. Indeed, you could go so far as to say that refusing to change a nappy – or complete other childcare tasks – would be met these days with the utmost scorn, not just from women, but from other men. It would have been highly unusual for a woman of our mothers’ generation to expect such support and input from a male partner. Some did exist: they were called “involved fathers” because the norm was to leave the children to the woman and, though the term still exists, it is highly likely to provoke an eye-roll, as is the suggestion that dads are merely “babysitting” their own kids.

That is a sea change, and in the space of one generation we have come a long, long way. Watching BBC archive interview footage from 1973, I was reminded of the retrograde attitudes towards women and work in our mothers’ lifetimes. The vox pop question is posed: “Is a woman’s place in the home?” and the responses, from men and women alike, are predictably unreconstructed. “I don’t believe in women’s lib from sheer biology,” says one woman. “They get too domineering, if you give them too much money,” says one man. “It should be the man who earns the money.”

This week I went to the Women in Revolt! exhibition at Tate Britain, a survey of feminist art and activism between 1970 and 1990. At that time the introduction briefs us – indeed, as for so much of the last century – women were still “second-class citizens”, with no maternity rights or protection from sex discrimination. There were no rape crisis units or domestic violence shelters, and if you were married you were your husband’s legal dependant. Until the law changed in 1991 he also had the right to have sex with you whether you consented or not.

Walking around and looking at the art that sprang from this parlous set of circumstances was unexpectedly emotional. It opens with a rather depressing painting by Maureen Scott, titled Mother and Child at Breaking Point (1970) – as many no doubt were – and from there takes us through a UK history of the struggle for female liberation in the face of male oppression, much of which relates to work and childcare.

A survey of the daily routines of female workers at a metal-box factory in Bermondsey, produced by Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly, made for sobering viewing: a litany of menial and childcare tasks, plus the making of all of one’s husband’s meals, followed by a factory shift. The Hackney Flashers’ work Who’s Holding the Baby? lays bare the awful state of late 1970s and early 80s childcare, and the isolation that many mothers faced. The artwork was part of a campaign for more shared care and better childcare provision, and includes a newspaper front page about a young mother who threw herself from a tower block with her two-year-old son in her arms.

There is a bleakness to some of the work. But I was left feeling inspired and hopeful that so many women in challenging circumstances were able to channel their anger into art and activism – often while also shouldering the lion’s share of the childcare. I left with a feeling of gratitude for our feminist forebears, including the women of Greenham who envisaged a nuclear- and war-free world for their children, and the feminist campaigners whose commitment to anti-racism, LGBT+ rights and disability rights have helped shape society today.

Yet in the days since I’ve also been troubled by the question of how much has really changed, at least for mothers. Huge strides have been made in terms of equal rights, and men are certainly taking on more of the childcare. But housing is so expensive that it requires two incomes, and working mothers are still performing the bulk of domestic labour, with many reaching breaking point during the pandemic.

I don’t mean to sound downbeat, but the Republic of Parenthood isn’t all sunny uplands, despite what the cheesy Instagram reels may have you believe. Someone really needs to do a spoof showing a man scrubbing the toilet and performing the other menial domestic tasks that motherhood involves, for a start. In fact, it’s the comedy that millennials are producing – in the form of reels, podcasts, and standup routines – about the daily battles and chaos of parenthood that give me the most hope. Perhaps they’ll grace the walls of a gallery some day.

What’s working
My son, who took his first steps at a corrected age of 17 months, is now walking confidently and steadily, though I’m secretly pleased that he still loves to hold my hand rather than running off over the horizon. I am so proud of him.

What’s not
The weather. Never is the absence of places to go with a toddler more apparent than during the cold, dark days of November when the rain is pouring down and your child is stuck inside climbing the walls. I can’t work out why there aren’t more parent-friendly cafes with playrooms. The ones we’ve been to are great and seem to be thriving, so there’s clearly a market there.


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